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China science

Launch of China’s most powerful rocket helps Beijing close gap with US

Long March CZ-5 matches anything currently in use by America and its development is crucial to success of nation’s future space programme, say anaylsts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 9:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

China has launched the most powerful space rocket it has ever built from a base on southern Hainan Island.

The Long March CZ-5 blasted off from the Wenchang space launch base at 8.43pm on Thursday.

It means China has finally developed rockets of equal power to those used by the US space programme.

The CZ-5 belongs to a new generation of rockets that will be used in China’s future space projects.

It will be deployed during lunar and Mars exploration programmes, with a mission to the Red Planet likely to be launched as early as in four years’ time, according to the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.

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The CZ-5 can lift 25 tonnes of cargo into lower earth orbit, similar to the performance of the Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful launch vehicle in the US space fleet.

The arrival of the CZ-5 means the gap between China and the US in space has narrowed from decades to years and the game will change profoundly from now on, according to several space analysts.

The US has built more powerful rockets in the past, including the Saturn V, the largest rocket ever flown in human history, but they have all been retired, allowing China, which has suffered severe delays in its large rocket project, to slowly catch up.

James Clay Moltz, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, said the importance of the rocket to China was huge.

The rocket and later versions boosted by even more powerful engines will allow China to match the US in operating large-scale, high performance spy satellites and global military communication satellites, as well as attempting to put up a full-sized space station, land humans on the moon or send robotic rovers to Mars.

“The CZ-5’s success would mark a big step forward in China’s ability to put heavy payloads into orbit, both civilian and military,” he said.

Moltz also predicted there would now be an increase in competition in space between China and the US.

“The United States has an even larger rocket likely to come on-line soon, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which will have twice the power of the CZ-5,” he said.

“Nasa’s SLS rocket, with its first launch scheduled in late 2018, will be even larger. China hopes to match it with its planned CZ-9 booster. So the competition for the next five years is already well under way.”

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Chinese leaders have given the nation’s space programmes a high priority, with rapidly increasing investment, and the government has used previous US accomplishments, such as the Saturn V rocket, as a yardstick to gauge China’s own achievements in space.

But levels of funding for the US space programme are far less certain, with neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump outlining a clear vision for future space exploration in their presidential campaigns.

James Lewis, a senior vice-president at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, cautioned against any talk of greater competition in space between the two nations.

The US political leadership doesn’t care about space exploration
James Lewis, senior vice-president, Centre for Strategic and International Studies

“I don’t think there is a space race between China and the US, if only because the US doesn’t think it is in a race. The US political leadership doesn’t care about space exploration.”

Dr Morris Jones, a space expert based in Australia, said the CZ-5 was critical to China’s major goals in space flight.

“Without the Long March 5, there can be no space station. There can be no large robot missions to the moon or to Mars,” he said. “Every space mission starts with a rocket launch. No other rocket in China’s fleet matches the power of Long March 5.”

The development of the CZ-5 has been fraught with difficulties and the first launch comes after years of delays, but it also signals the maturity of China’s space programme, according to Jones.

Simply manufacturing and transporting such a large rocket is challenging
Morris Jones, Australia-based space expert

“Large, complex rockets like Long March 5 always face development problems and delays. It’s critical that China did not rush the rocket into flight before it was ready,” he said. “Simply manufacturing and transporting such a large rocket is challenging and requires changes from the way smaller rockets are handled.”

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A huge gap between China and the US in space flight has been present for decades.

When the Apollo missions sent American astronauts to the moon, China was just about to launch its first satellite. When the construction of the International Space Station led by the US neared completion, China was putting its first astronaut in orbit.

The launch of the CZ-5, however, may change the situation.

“China will greatly narrow the gap between its own space programme and its major competitors if it can successfully operate this rocket,” Jones said. “The lack of a rocket of this class has been a large gap in China’s space capabilities.”